New Kent, Va.,
June 30, 1864.
My Dear Friend: — Since my last letter to you., and since Grant's army has left these parts and crossed over to the James, we have been on picket duty over here in New Kent county, which, you know, lies between the Chickahominy and the Pamunkey rivers. We are distant from Richmond about twenty-five miles, and directly east from the city. We forded the Chickahominy at the railroad crossing, first laying a corduroy of poles to prevent the horses and guns from sinking into the rand. There are no Federals hereabouts now, as many thousands as were here a week ago. All have crossed over to the James.
No, I mistake; there are quite a number of Federals here around yet. But they are dead Federals. Or, rather, the most of them are negroes that had joined the Federal army, and were fighting against their former masters. And they are unburied negroes. They were some of Sheridan's lawless gang, and were killed in a cavalry engagement between Wade Hampton and Sheridan, that occurred about ten days ago. They have been left unburied, and scores of them are lying here, festering and rotting under the rays of the hot summer's sun. It is a sickening sight. But there are no inhabitants, or, but very few, to be inconvenienced or endangered by the terrible stench, and so, as I suppose, they will lie and rot, and their bones will bleach here beneath the dews and suns of summer, even until "this cruel war," this heartless strife, is finally ended. Alas ! the poor negro ! how very little does the Federal army or the Northern people really care for him! In the army, they put him in the front rank, to be hewed down like sheep! — or they set him to work to dig trenches for the white soldiers to shelter under. We have several negro cooks, and I think the sight of their dead brethren here has opened their eyes a little.
This, indeed, and in very truth, is a battle-scarred country. Made desolate in the beginning of the war by the tread and the hate of two hundred thousand armed invaders, it has remained so, and will so continue, until Peace and Industry once more arise to cover it with the healing mantle of prosperity and repose. We all, my friend, have abundant cause to be thankful, yea, doubly thankful, that an invading host has not swept through Surry and Isle of Wight, with its besom of woe and destruction, as it has here in these counties on the east of Richmond, and on down to the bay and the sea. Could you witness the ruin that has been wrought wherever a Federal army has been, your heart, I know, would swell with gratitude that your section had escaped.
My heart goes out in sympathy and pity to the women and children and old men of New Kent and Charles City, and the other counties over here, who are forced refugees from their lands and once pleasant homes. But the ashes of a terrible desolation mark them now.
Do you suppose that the old soldiers of the South can ever forget these things? — that the picture of these blackened ruins will ever pass entirely from their memory ?
But there is another matter that is troubling us now — that of food, something to eat. Rations are fearfully short and have been for sometime. The men have no money, and if they had any, there is nothing in this part of the State to buy. There are no crops, no gardens, nothing of anything like vegetables, fruit, fowls, or eggs. It is a barren country. And since the arrival of Lee's army, which has to be rationed from the two cities, it seems that our commissary department is entirely unable to furnish anything like the proper amount of bread and meat to feed us. It has been three weeks since our Command — the Battalion — tasted meat. And flour we have not had in sometime. It is only corn meal now, a short pound per day to each man, and this has been our sole fare for more than two weeks. Corn-pone only, made into dough with all the husk and litter it may contain, three times a day! No; not three times. There is never enough of it for three meals a day, and many a time the men will cook the whole day's ration and eat it all at one time! Yea, and do not have enough then. These are literal facts.
It well-nigh makes our good-natured Commissary Sergeant weep to go to town for rations and have to return with nothing for the men but just plain corn meal. They say it is the best they can do for us now. But they could hardly do much worse.
Picture to yourself, if you can, a company of soldiers, all seated around in small groups, each group constituting a "mess," and all munching away upon corn bread only — nothing but corn bread to eat. It may be, there is some show at hilarity and mirth, for it is a dark day indeed in camp, if some soldier cannot evoke mirth out of something. But there is apparent an undercurrent of unrest, of dissatisfaction, of some want or desire unsupplied, which, if not expressed in words, is manifest in the faces and manner of the men. They cannot help it. Hunger will tell. And while bread alone will appease the appetite for a time, it will not continue to do so indefinitely. But we have passed through such dearths before, and fondly hope this one is nearly over.
Besides,. we have orders to return at once to Bottom's Bridge, and we like that much better than staying here. All is quiet about here. No Federals are near us any- where that we can hear of. They have left the mud and mosquitoes of the Chickahominy for the broader James and the turgid Appomattox. And Petersburg is to be now the storm-centre of the war in Virginia. May the cloud soon recede, spanned by the rainbow of peace.
Your friend, B.
-Under the Stars and Bars: A History of the Surry Light Artillery-Recollections of a Private Soldier in the War Between the States
By Benjamin Washington Jones
*On a personal note, this is the 500th post of this website-